Wednesday, June 19, 2024


Dhaka Tribune


Nothing traditional about it

Has Singapore cracked the statehood code?

Update : 11 Dec 2023, 06:57 PM

Lee Kwan Yew is long dead and gone. The Singapore he created trampling on the generally understood principles of democracy and rights thrives and prospers along the tracks of his vision. The inevitable caveat can’t be ignored -- evolution has its own way of converting straight lines into curves that shouldn’t be measured. The sleepy and seedy ramshackle fishing island state -- roughly the same size as what Dhaka used to be -- is today a hub of finance, trade, shipping, and technology.

Reviled at one time as a ruthless, almost cruel, dictator buoyed by a democratic set-up that was questionable, Lee Kwan Yew is today spoken of in hushed tones of reverence. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in power for the 58 years of Singapore’s independence and is unlikely to be overpowered any time soon. 

Firmly in place is continuity, very low levels of corruption, excellent plans for the present and future, and a high degree of transparency. People do grumble, as in most countries, over the soaring cost of living. The jocular interpretation of PAP is Pay and Pay. Views also fly around that the country may be pricing itself out of competitiveness. That’s one of the areas where Kwan Yew’s vision has been dented. Barring history books and choice educational institutions, his presence isn’t one of “in-your-face” or “down-your-throat”. Basic systems have been largely adhered to and refined with the use of technology. Along with a fairly stiffly ordered state come the usual cries of “police state” and complaints of “a state without character.”

Those that toss around such ideas miss the fact that order comes at a price.

Lee Kwan Yew had once let it be known that a close confidante had been fired due to corruption. Currently two former ministers are in jail due to relatives having accepted benefits from companies blessed by major approved contracts. The man who had instructed the police to whack the backsides of citizens urinating publicly would probably approve of the stern signage at prime public places where sex offenders are warned of fines, jails, and, yes, even caning 

The practice of senior politicians urging public sector employees to serve with dedication and honesty is old hat. In place is a pragmatic system where civil service emoluments are assessed quarterly so as to ensure employees can match inflation and still save. In the connected society, face-to-face contact between public servants and citizens is limited to an absolute necessity. Merits of decisions, too, are clearly articulated in business or official communications. 

Historical, cultural, and pure reality form the basis of policies with the impacts cushioned by ultimate benefits. Revenue targets are rarely missed as the unstructured economy is relentlessly forced towards structured formats. There are taxes on everything imaginable, along with well-thought-through taxation policies that allow small businesses to thrive and tourists to get the exemption refunds. Free-market economy prevails, yet, a close watch is maintained to prevent syndicated stranglehold on prices of essentials. Quiet mechanisms exist that allow lower income groups to save and spend till they graduate to levels where the concept of taxing the rich comes into play.

There have been compromises along the way. For all the stringent immigration policies, the overseas workforce is supported to celebrate their respective social, cultural, and religious festivals. Practice and expansion of belief is regulated so as not to come in the way of daily life. Rules and regulations on public service grievances are strict with open options of both public and private facilities available. Education has graduated from a narrow focus on regurgitated history and culture of yesteryear to all-encompassing, evolutionary modernity constantly being updated to be in tandem with the advancing world. The really difficult decision to best utilize scant land in an environmentally sustainable fashion is almost unheard of. Farms, including the profitable pig breeding sites, were closed down. The cost of mostly imported essential products are shrewdly balanced by high-value export baskets. Financial institutions are closely manufactured with business protocols. 

The trade-off between traditionalism and progress may not have been a democratic choice. The vox populi is still valued in terms of truly representative public consultations. Not for Singapore is the money-wasting, time-wasting, and “to pot with the public” concepts of protests, strikes, and meaningless shows of strength. The quieter choice is that of progress, building wealth, and giving shape to public service way ahead of mimes of lip-service.


Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.

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